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Exploring the Unexpected: An AI Model Uncovers Rare Earth Elements

The date of: 2024-01-02
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Throughout Earth’s history, powerful geological processes have shaped the planet, formed diverse landscapes, and hidden valuable resources. Like silent architects, these processes play a crucial role in creating the world we see today.

One important aspect of this geological story is the formation of critical minerals—essential elements for modern technology. These minerals are not random features but are closely tied to the larger narrative of Earth’s evolution.

Scientists and engineers are exploring the connections between geological processes and the creation of critical mineral deposits to understand better how to identify, extract, and produce these deposits to help meet the demand for resources considered the building blocks of an electrified future.

Used in various applications, from energy production and national defense to transportation and communication technologies (think batteries for electric vehicles, permanent magnets for wind turbine generators), critical minerals are defined as non-fuel minerals or mineral materials essential to economic or national security and have a supply chain vulnerable to disruption.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its latest Critical Minerals Market Review, reported that the record deployment of clean energy technologies has propelled the huge demand for critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper.

“From 2017 to 2022, the energy sector was the main factor behind a tripling in overall demand for lithium, a 70% jump in demand for cobalt, and a 40% rise in demand for nickel,” the report said.

“The market for energy transition minerals reached $320 billion in 2022 and is set for continued rapid growth, moving it increasingly to center stage for the global mining industry.”

In the US, critical mineral supply chains are heavily dependent on imports. In 2021, the US was 100% import-reliant for 14 of the 50 critical minerals identified by the US Geological Survey (USGS) in 2022. Additionally, according to the USGS, most of the critical minerals that are essential for meeting decarbonization goals have a net import reliance of greater than 50%.

Securing Supply of Rare Earth Elements Critical minerals categorized as rare earth elements (REE) are particularly important to reaching decarbonization goals. With a name reminiscent of science fiction superheroes, the lanthanides are a series of 15 elements—plus scandium and yttrium—collectively regarded as REE. REEs range from light (LREE) to heavy (HREE). While not geologically rare, extraction and processing are complex, expensive, and environmentally hazardous.

In addition to being a leading source of critical minerals gallium, germanium, and graphite, China dominates REE production and processing. According to a report by The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, the country is home to some of the most productive and lowest-cost REE-containing geological formations, which the government has been developing since the 1970s. China holds 37% of the world’s REE reserves, as compared to the US, which held only 1% of the reserves in 2019.

US critical mineral supply chains have the potential to be disrupted by adverse foreign actions, pandemics, natural disasters, and other global events. For this reason, developing domestic resources to secure supply chains and meet future critical mineral demand has become a national priority, with the signing of Executive Order No. 14017 by US President Joe Biden in February 2021.

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